I’m still waiting for the response article that puts the U2 album release together with the pulling of the iPod Classic line (which has mostly been greeted with ‘oh, sigh, nostalgia for that dated thing I don’t use anymore,’ but personally I like having a ton of music on the go that’s not beholden to an internet connection), so I guess I’ll put in a half-assed attempt. Bottom line: if it hadn’t been clear before that Apple is pushing for a future where they can make money strictly from subscription and cloud services rather than album sales, it should be now.
A lot of industry rhetoric seems to be "people don’t listen to albums anymore," which gives convenient support to a model that benefits Apple, Spotify, Amazon, etc., but will ultimately be pretty lousy for musicians (this impact is well-documented) and listeners (if you don’t think so, imagine a scenario analogous to film and TV, in which streaming rights for labels and artists are divided among the various streaming services; I’ve got Hulu Plus, Netflix, and a borrowed HBO Go password, how about you?). It’s not hard to imagine that the case is more that fewer people *buy* albums due to both filesharing services and free/cheap streaming services. Even a look at Spotify’s numbers on playlists vs. albums (which the author of the first piece linked above does in a previous article) doesn’t really say much, since a playlist in this context can be anything. The majority of my Spotify playlists function nothing like, say, mixtapes—in fact, most are just saved albums that I intend to listen to later.
Another troublesome part of this conversation (which streaming services can now take advantage of) is that artists and listeners have been casually framing the dichotomy for so long as “physical media” vs. “digital media” (for simplicity, let’s put CDs into the former category) that it’s become harder to make clear the very real, very important differences between owning digital media and streaming digital media. Vinyl and locally-stored mp3s may be different in that the latter are infinitely copyable and easily shared without royalties paid, but they’re also similar in that you won’t suddenly lose access to them over a label dispute, internet service outage, streaming service going out of business, etc. Information professionals are paid to deal with issues like this when it comes to access to electronic resources in libraries; it’s not uncomplicated stuff! And I’m sure—I’m sure—Apple would like to make it uncomplicated for us, but is there really anything less complicated than “I have this thing—I bought it or illegally downloaded it or got it for free from an artist-supported archive of live recordings**—and I can play it when I want?”
Finally, one truly crappy part about this U2 ploy is that it makes Apple’s case wonderfully in emphasizing the ephemerality and disposability of the album as a form by pushing an obnoxiously ephemeral, disposable album* by a formerly quintessential Great Album band.
* It’s not even bad enough to be interesting! Do you think David Fricke goes home at night and just weeps at the opinions he’s required to write, the stars he’s required to award for Rolling Stone?
** No one seems to discuss this phenomenon much when it comes to subscription streaming services.